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Sunday, December 10, 2023
Dec. 10, 2023

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Auburn pays $5.9 million to settle wrongful death lawsuit filed by parents of man killed by officer


SEATTLE — The city of Auburn will pay $5.9 million to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed by the parents of a man who in 2019 was shot in the back of the head during a scuffle with a police officer, according to court documents.

The settlement resolves a federal lawsuit filed last year in connection with the death of Enosa Strickland Jr., who was killed May 20, 2019, by former Auburn Officer Kenneth Lyman. Lyman killed Strickland after responding to a report of a domestic disturbance in the parking lot of the Madera apartments.

The settlement brings to more than $11 million the amount the city has paid for the actions of two officers in lawsuits alleging unjustified violence. Between them, the officers had racked up more than 100 incidents where they used significant force during an arrest, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.

Lyman has since left the department. The other officer, Jeff Nelson, has killed a total of three people. He was charged with murder for the on-duty shooting of Jesse Sarey just 11 days after Strickland was killed, and has been on paid leave — receiving his annual salary of $102,656 — ever since. His trial is expected to begin next year.

Lyman said Strickland was intoxicated and increasingly belligerent during their encounter and then assaulted Lyman and his partner, both of whom claimed Strickland grabbed a dagger-like, fixed-blade knife that had fallen from Lyman’s utility vest.

Attorneys for the family question the officers’ version of events, claiming there is evidence Strickland was unarmed when he was killed.

According to depositions and other documents filed in U.S. District Court, the officer’s possession of that knife was in violation of department policies.

Chief Mark Caillier, in a sworn deposition, said the apparent misconduct “may have been overlooked” during the department’s review of the shooting, which he oversaw.

Lyman was cleared by the department and the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The settlement was reached as a result of mediation.

In a statement Thursday, the city acknowledged the lawsuit had been settled, which it said “is not an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the city of Auburn.”

According to the lawsuit and court exhibits, Lyman and Auburn Officer Derek Morse responded to a 911 call from a woman at the apartments who believed her ex-boyfriend was intoxicated and at her door.

The officers responded to find Strickland, who went by the initials “EJ,” sitting in a vehicle in the parking lot. The officers decided he was too intoxicated to drive and allowed Strickland to call his mother to come and pick him up.

During the wait, however, Lyman and Morse said Strickland became increasingly agitated and belligerent, and began walking toward them in a threatening manner. That, according to court pleadings, is when Lyman punched Strickland and the two officers took him to the ground in the paved parking lot.

“EJ was not engaged in any illegal activities or violating any laws,” according to the lawsuit. “EJ was unarmed. EJ was not arrested.”

About one minute into the scuffle, Officer Lyman twice attempted to shoot EJ in the back of the head with his firearm. The first time, the weapon malfunctioned and did not discharge. According to the department’s internal review of the shooting, Lyman then cleared the weapon and fired a second shot point-blank into the back of Strickland’s head.

An autopsy and evidence at the scene indicated that “EJ was face down on his stomach” when the shot was fired.

The lawsuit alleged that dash-camera video produced by the department “contains no evidence that EJ posed an imminent risk of serious harm or death to anyone when Officer Lyman chose to shoot and kill [him].”

The young woman whom EJ had been trying to visit, Macayla Lowry, said in a sworn deposition that she heard someone say, “‘Drop the knife, drop the knife or I’m gonna shoot.’

“And then I heard him laugh, Enosa, and he said ‘What knife are you talking about’ and then I heard a shot,” she said.

Strickland’s mother, and father arrived within minutes to find their son’s body “on the pavement, handcuffed, with blood dripping down his head,” the lawsuit said. “They have suffered and continue to suffer significant trauma and emotional distress from witnessing that scene.”

According to court documents, Lyman joined the Auburn department in 2016 and began his patrol duties in 2017. Strickland’s lawyers claimed in pleadings that Lyman “almost immediately” showed a willingness to resort to force by bypassing efforts to de-escalate conflicts.

A year after starting patrol duties, Lyman was counseled and a letter placed in his file after he punched a man in a mental health crisis and delivered repeated knee-strikes to the man’s head. In his report, Lyman stated he wanted to “get his attention.”

In two other incidents, his commanders questioned his use of a lateral vascular neck restraint — a hold that restricts blood flow to someone’s brain, causing unconsciousness. One instance involved a drunken man at the Muckleshoot casino. In the other, Lyman decided to arrest a person wanted for a felony without calling for backup, according to court documents.

According to court pleadings, when Lyman left the Department in 2022, he had been involved in 43 reported uses of force, of which 24 were against people of color. Strickland was Samoan-American.

Despite carrying a Taser and pepper-spray, the pleadings claim Lyman never used them, instead resorting to “more injurious force options such as a physical push, punches to the face” and the use of the LVNR, which has since been banned by the Washington Legislature.

According to the pleadings, just three of the instances where Lyman used force were subject to review by his commanders — resulting in a counseling letter in his file. That letter is not considered disciplinary in nature.

The chief, in his deposition, acknowledged it was rare to have two officer-involved shootings in one year in Auburn — let alone 11 days apart — but said no action was taken by the department to review or change policies.

The Strickland shooting and Lyman’s defense of his actions bears striking similarities to Nelson’s shooting of Sarey.

Nelson also claimed that Sarey, 26, had scuffled with him and grabbed a knife out of his utility vest, forcing Nelson to shoot him. As Sarey slumped from a gunshot to his abdomen, according to video and a witness, Nelson tried to shoot him again but his gun jammed. According to the charges, Nelson cleared the malfunction and then shot Sarey in the head.

Sarey was Nelson’s third fatal shooting as an Auburn officer.

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